Supporters of Indiana’s school voucher program can no longer pretend that it’s intended to provide parents with the best education for their children no matter where they live.
No, it’s about using public dollars to pay for religious education, pure and simple. More and more every year, vouchers are going to parents who never intended to send their kids to public schools. They are taking advantage of the program to get religious instruction at taxpayer expense.
Look, for example, at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington, which enrolled 25 new voucher students last fall. The school has nearly 100 students receiving vouchers and received almost $400,000 in state-funded tuition assistance this year.
The school’s principal, Joyce Huck, told the Bloomington Herald-Times that most of the new students were from families that previously home-schooled their kids.
“Before, looking at education that was faith-based was out of reach financially, and with the scholarships, they were able to make that happen,” Huck told reporter Mary Keck.
According to the annual voucher program report released last week by the Indiana Department of Education, 52 percent of the 32,686 current voucher students have no record of having attended a public school in the state.
Voucher students were eligible to receive $134.7 million in taxpayer-funded tuition assistance this year, the report said. Ninety-nine percent of the more than 300 private schools that enroll voucher students are religious schools. With maybe three exceptions, those are Christian schools, primarily Catholic, Lutheran or Evangelical Protestant.
Proponents used to argue that the program saved the state money, because it would have cost more to send the kids to public schools. But with a majority of voucher students never having attending public school, they can no longer make that claim.
When the voucher program was created in 2011, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels emphasized the idea that students should attend a public school for a year to qualify. It was only fair, he said, that public schools should get a chance to show they could meet the children’s needs. But that idea fell by the wayside as legislators created additional ways to qualify.
One of the new pathways – students can get vouchers if their local public schools receives an F from the state – echoed the rationale that the program would help students “escape” failing public schools. But only a handful of voucher students fall into that category. Over 10 times as many qualified by having been awarded assistance for one year by a scholarship granting organization, a scheme that can be tailored to virtually any family that meets Indiana’s generous income requirements for vouchers.
Here’s more evidence that families aren’t opting for vouchers for academic quality: Fort Wayne Community Schools has by far the most voucher participants of any public school district in the state at 4,684. But a clear majority of FWCS schools received an A in 2015. None received an F.
The Indiana State Teachers Association showed that vouchers worth $8 million were awarded to 16 religious schools that received a D or F from the state. Three of those schools are in Fort Wayne, and they received a total of about $3 million from vouchers.